California state law guarantees that new parents, biological or adoptive, can take 12 weeks off from work to care for their babies without worrying about losing their health care or having a job when they are ready to come back. But here's the catch: These benefits are available only to parents who happen to work for a company that employs 50 or more people within a 75-mile radius. That's about 41% of the state's workforce.
If they work for a company with fewer than 50 workers, their bosses are under no obligation to continue to pay their health care benefits during their absence or give them their jobs back when they return. This is patently unfair. Why should some parents get short shrift based simply on the number of people on their companies' rosters?
Now, state lawmakers are considering a proposal that would extend the full benefits to about 2.7 million more California workers. The bill, SB 63, would require companies that employ 20 or more people within a 75-mile radius to offer protected parental leave. That's only about 15% more of the workforce. Nevertheless, it's movement in the right direction.
Businesses are not happy about the proposed expansion of protected parental leave, even though they don't have to pay the employees who use the benefit. (That money comes from a state insurance fund.) The California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are opposing the bill, and their main concern is not the cost of overtime or the hassle of juggling schedules to cover for the employee, but the fear of lawsuits claiming bogus or merely technical violations of the law. The concern is not based on past experience, however. The job protection in the California Family Rights Act has been in place for about 25 years without triggering an epidemic of "shakedown" lawsuits, and there's no reason to believe this expansion will change that.
Not every employee in every workplace will have a child during the course of his or her employment. And not all who do become parents will choose to take every week of leave available. Still, there are costs associated with keeping a job open for 12 weeks. But society gets a return on this investment — according to a coalition of pediatrics trade groups, research shows that parental leave produces healthier, better-adjusted babies. There may well be a benefit to companies as well. According to a study published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the vast majority of the 253 California employers surveyed reported that paid family leave improved employee productivity and morale, boosted profitability and lowered employee turnover rates. (Some companies even noted a cost savings associated with providing paid family leave, the study found.) And with job protections, workers are more likely to take full advantage of parental leave available.
Working parents aren't malingerers; they are taking on the tough job of raising the next generation while remaining gainfully employed. Regardless of how many people their company employs, they need the time and support to make sure they can do both well. And given that they're paying into the state's parental leave program, they deserve the benefits no less than the workers who are already receiving them.